Military Wiki
Guatemalan Civil War
Part of the Central American crisis
Exhumation in the ixil triangle in Guatemala.jpg
Ixil people carrying their loved one's remains after an exhumation in the Ixil Triangle in February 2012.
DateNovember 13, 1960 – December 29, 1996
(36 years, 1 month, 2 weeks and 2 days)
Result Peace accord signed in 1996


Supported by

Cuba Cuba[1]
Nicaragua Nicaragua (1979-90)[1]

Guatemala Guatemalan military Various government-led paramilitary organizations. Supported by

United States United States[2]
Israel Israel[3]
Taiwan Taiwan[4]
Chile Chile[5]
Argentina Argentina[6]
South Africa South Africa[7]
Commanders and leaders
Luis Augusto Turcios Lima
Rolando Morán
Marco Antonio Yon Sosa
Leonardo Castillo Johnson
Rodrigo Asturias
Ricardo Rosales
Guatemala Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes
Guatemala Enrique Peralta Azurdia
Guatemala Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio
Guatemala Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García
Guatemala Fernando Romeo Lucas García
Guatemala Efraín Ríos Montt
Guatemala Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores
Casualties and losses
140,000–200,000 dead and missing[8][9][10][11]

The Guatemalan Civil War ran from 1960 to 1996. It was mostly fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethnic Mayan indigenous people and Ladino peasants, who together make up the rural poor. The government forces of Guatemala have been condemned for committing genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala during the civil war and for widespread human rights violations against civilians. After some leftist governments during the 1940s, conservative governments and anti-communist regimes gained power during the 1950s. Continuing social discontent gave rise in the 1960s to a series of armed leftist groups emerging from the large poor classes of indigenous and peasants.[12] In 1966 for the first time, the Guatemalan security forces used forced disappearances against the opposition, with the number of disappeared reaching into the tens of thousands by the end of the war. In 1970 the first of many military rulers representing the Institutional Democratic Party took office, and repression increased. During the 1980s, the Guatemalan military assumed almost absolute government power for five years. It had successfully infiltrated and eliminated enemies in every socio-political institution of the nation, including the political, social, and intellectual classes.[citation needed] In the final stage of the civil war, the military developed a parallel, semi-visible, low profile but high-effect, control of Guatemala's national life.[13]

As well as fighting between the government's forces and rebel groups, the conflict included, much more significantly, a large-scale campaign of one-sided violence by the government against the Guatemalan civilian population, including indigenous activists, suspected government opponents, returning refugees, critical academics and students, left-leaning politicians, trade unionists, journalists, and street children.[14]

Up to 700,000 people died or went missing during the war, including 190,000 to 250,000 people who "disappeared". In 2009 Guatemalan courts sentenced Felipe Cusanero as the first person convicted of the crime of ordering forced disappearances. In 2013 the former dictator Rios Montt is on a trial genocide for the killing of more than 1,400 indigenous Ixil Mayans during his 1982-83 rule. He was the first former head of state to be tried for genocide by his country's judicial system.[15]


In 1944, the "October Revolutionaries" took control of the government. They instituted liberal economic reform, benefiting and politically strengthening the civil and labor rights of the urban working class and the peasants. Elsewhere, a group of leftist students, professionals, and liberal-democratic government coalitions developed, led by Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Decree 900, passed in 1952, ordered the redistribution of fallow land on large estates, threatening the interests of the landowning elite.

As a consequence, the U.S. government ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to launch Operation PBSUCCESS (1953–54) and halt Guatemala's “communist revolt", as perceived by the corporate fruit companies such as United Fruit and the U.S. State Department. The CIA chose right-wing Guatemalan Army Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to lead an "insurrection" in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état. Upon deposing the Árbenz Guzmán government, Castillo Armas began to dissolve a decade of social and economic reform and legislative progress, and banned labor unions and left-wing political parties, a disfranchisement of left-wing Guatemalans.[16]

A series of military coups d’état followed, featuring fraudulent elections in which only military personnel were candidates. Aggravating the general poverty and political repression motivating the civil war was the widespread socio-economic discrimination and racism practiced against the Guatemala's indigenous peoples, such as the Maya; many later fought in the civil war. Although the indigenous Guatemalans constitute more than half of the national populace, they were landless, having been dispossessed of their lands since colonial times. The landlord upper classes of the oligarchy, generally descendants of Spanish and other European immigrants to Guatemala, although often with some mestizo ancestry as well, controlled most of the land.[17]

Initial phase of the civil war: 1960s and early 1970s

On 13 November 1960, a group of left-wing junior military officers of the Escuela Politécnica national military academy, revolted against the government (1958–63) of General Ydigoras Fuentes, who had usurped power in 1958, after the assassination of the incumbent Colonel Castillo Armas. The survivors of the failed revolt hid in the hills, and later established communication with the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Those surviving officers established an insurgent movement known as the MR-13 (Movimiento Revolucionario 13 Noviembre), named after the date of the officers’ revolt. Through the early phase of the conflict, the MR-13 was a principal component of the insurgent movement in Guatemala.[18]

In 1963, the MR-13 merged with the PGT (Guatemalan Labour Party; composed and led by middle-class intellectuals and students), as part of a consortium that coordinated the activities and movements of the insurgents, known as the FAR or Rebel Armed Forces. The operational base of the insurgency during this period was in the mountainous Oriente (East), the southeastern region of the country, comprising Izabal, Puerto Barrios, and Zacapa. The government initiated a series of rural counterinsurgency operations to dismantle such guerrilla strongholds. In February and March 1964, the Guatemalan Air Force began selectively bombing guerrilla areas in the department of Izabal, which was followed by sweeps in the neighboring province of Zacapa under the code-name "Operation Falcon" in September and October 1965.[19] These operations were supplemented by increased U.S. military assistance. Beginning in 1965, the U.S. government sent Green Berets and CIA advisers to instruct the Guatemalan military in counterinsurgency (anti-guerrilla warfare). In addition, U.S. police and "Public Safety" advisers were dispatched to reorganize the urban security structures.

In 1966, soon after President Julio César Méndez Montenegro (1966–70) assumed office, the 5,000-man Guatemalan Army launched its largest yet counterinsurgency campaign in the department of Zacapa. This campaign, dubbed "Operation Guatemala," was put under the supervision of Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio (later president from 1970–74), with guidance and training from the US Army Eighth Special Forces Group.[20] The new counterinsurgency program in the region consisted primarily of the use of scorched-earth tactics as a means of displacement and separating the insurgents from the civilian support base. The counterinsurgency program incorporated the same strategies, doctrine and military hardware that was being used in the Vietnam War at the same time, given the influence of the United States.

US assistance to government

The first major phase of the urban counterinsurgency was enacted almost concurrently with the rural offensive, and was directed against the urban PGT. In November 1965, US Public Safety Advisor John Kilgore arrived in Guatemala on temporary loan from his post in Venezuela to assist senior military and police officials in establishing an urban counterinsurgency program.[21] With the assistance of Longan, the Guatemalan Military launched "Operation Limpieza" (Operation Cleanup), an urban counterinsurgency program under the command of Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque. This program coordinated the activities of all of the country's main security agencies (including the Army, the Judicial Police and the National Police) in both covert and overt anti-guerrilla operations. Under Arriaga's direction, the security forces began to abduct, torture and kill the PGT's key constituents.[22]

First forced disappearances

In March 1966, thirty PGT associates were kidnapped, tortured and killed by the security forces. This was one of the first major instances of forced disappearance in Latin American history.[2] These 30 disappearances marked the beginning of a dramatic increase of state repression in 1966. When law students at the University of San Carlos used legal measures (such as habeas corpus petitions) to require the government to present the detainees at court, some of the students were "disappeared" in turn.[23]

In exchange for military support of his administration, President Mendez authorized the armed forces to use "any means necessary" to suppress the insurgency. No longer bound to the rule of law, the security forces instituted a policy of systematic terror, which some observers referred to as "White Terror," as a counter-insurgency tactic.[24] Government forces killed or disappeared thousands of civilians during the escalation of the counterinsurgency. The repression was most intense in the eastern regions of the country, where the insurgency was most active, and in Guatemala City. In the eastern regions of Guatemala, the security forces engaged in the massacre of civilians and destruction of peasant communities as a means of breaking up guerrilla bases. Observers estimate that as many as 15,000 Guatemalans were killed by the government's military and paramilitary forces in three years of Mendez's presidency.[25] The victims included guerrilla sympathizers, labor union leaders, intellectuals, students, and vaguely defined "enemies of the government."[24]

Paramilitary death squads

Following the inauguration of President Julio César Méndez Montenegro, he appointed Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque to Defense Minister. Mendez activated the 'Special Commando Unit of the Guatemalan Army' (SCUGA). The SCUGA assumed control over most of the Guatemalan Army's urban counterinsurgency activities. It was placed under the command of Colonel Maximo Zepeda in January 1967. Composed of both military and civilian personnel, the SCUGA functioned both as a government-sponsored terrorist organization and as an intelligence-gathering apparatus.[26] SCUGA commandos routinely carried out abductions, bombings, street assassinations, torture, "disappearances" and executions of both documented and suspected communists. The SCUGA often collaborated with the Fourth Corps of the Guatemalan National Police, which carried out similar activities. Together these forces often carried out various counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations under the guise of fictitious paramilitary death squads and anti-communist front organizations (known by acronyms such as the NOA, CADEG, CRAG and RAYO). In addition to engaging in operations under the guise of para-militarism, the SCUGA nominally worked with paramilitary death squads such as the infamous Mano Blanca ("White Hand").[27]

The government's use of "any means necessary," resulted in the opposition increasing its level of resistance. The "White Terror" destruction of the insurgents' peasant base in the eastern provinces caused groups such as the FAR to retreat to Guatemala City. There, the insurgency (especially the FAR) resorted to a selective campaign of abductions and murders against both members of the security forces and U.S. military advisers. They assassinated the American ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, in 1968, and the German ambassador to Guatemala, Karl Von Spreti, in 1970.[28]

Domination by military rulers

In July 1970, with support from the Army, Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio assumed the presidency. He was the first of the string of Institutional Democratic Party military rulers who dominated Guatemalan politics in the 1970s and 1980s (his predecessor, Julio César Méndez, while dominated by the army, was nominally a civilian). Arana had served as the ambassador to Nicaragua during the Somoza regime. In a speech, President Arana stated, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."[29] Despite minimal armed insurgent activity at the time, Osorio imposed a "State of Siege" in November 1970. During the "State of Siege," the Osorio regime imposed a daily curfew from 9:00PM to 5:00AM, during which time all vehicle and pedestrian traffic—including ambulances, fire engines, nurses, and physicians—were forbidden throughout the national territory. The "State of Siege" was accompanied by increased government repression in the form of abductions, tortures, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. A January 1971 secret bulletin of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency detailed how Guatemalan security forces "quietly eliminated" hundreds of suspected "terrorists and bandits" in the Guatemalan countryside.[30] Though repression continued in the countryside, the "White Terror" of the Arana period was mostly urban and directed against the vestigial remains of the insurgency which existed primarily in the city. Amnesty International estimated that up to 7,000 civilian opponents of the regime were "disappeared" or found dead in 1971 alone.[31]

In October 1971, over 12,000 students at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala went on a general strike to protest the killing of students by the security forces; they called for an end to the "state of siege." On November 27, 1971, the Guatemalan military responded to the upheaval with an extensive raid on the main campus of the university seeking cached weapons and subversive paraphernalia. It mobilized 800 army personnel, as well as tanks, helicopters and armored cars, for the raid. They conducted a room-to-room search of the entire campus but found no evidence or supplies.[32]

The "State of Siege" remained in effect until the end of 1972, when the Osorio regime announced the military defeat of the insurgency. The end of the "State of Siege" coincided with the forced disappearance of much of the PGT's central committee. The overall levels of violence and repression declined following the end of Osorio's "state of siege," although violence on a smaller scale and the use of terror by the security forces persisted.[33] Overall, as many as 42,000 Guatemalan civilians were killed in the security operations of the six years of the Mendez and Arana regimes.[34] The repression led to the Guatemalan government being characterized by international human rights organizations as one of the world's most repressive regimes. Amnesty International mentioned Guatemala as one of several countries under a human rights state of emergency, while citing "the high incidence of disappearances of Guatemalan citizens" as a major and continuing problem in its 1972-1973 annual report.[35][36] The Arana regime also reportedly began employing extrajudicial terror as a means of fighting crime, and common criminals were targeted by death squads. In one incident on October 13, 1972, ten people were knifed to death in the name of a death squad known as the "Avenging Vulture." Guatemalan government sources told the U.S. Department of State that the "Avenging Vulture" and other similar death squads operating during the time period were a "smoke screen" for extra-legal tactics being employed by the National Police against non-political delinquents.[37]

Mass movement for social reforms

For several years after the "state of siege," the insurgency was largely inactive, having been defeated and demoralized on all fronts. Massive economic inequality persisted, compounded by external factors such the 1973 oil crisis, which led to rising food prices, fuel shortages, and decreased agricultural output due to the lack imported goods and petrol-based fertilizers. Additionally, a blatant electoral fraud during the 1974 presidential elections favored the government's preferred candidate, General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García, representing the right-wing alliance between the MLN and the Institutional Democratic Party (MLN-PID), against a center-left alliance promoting the ticket of Christian Democrat General José Efraín Ríos Montt (later president from 1982–83) and leftist economist Alberto Fuentes Mohr. Inflation, imbalance, public outrage at the electoral fraud, and discontent with human rights violations generated widespread protest and civil disobedience. A mass movement emerged that persisted throughout much of the decade.

The political pressures and tensions created by the mass movement prompted the government to try to co-opt some economic reforms. Unlike previous presidents, General Laugerud did not begin his term with the use of military repression to consolidate power. In the late 1970s, the administration began to negotiate solutions to labor disputes between unions and industries rather than silencing the workers through violence, which had been characteristic of the previous two presidencies.[38] This period marked a political opening for the opposition and allowed for greater political freedoms.

Coinciding with the election of Kjell Laugerud was the rise to prominence of labor organizations in rural Guatemala, such as the CUC. When the CUC (Committee for Peasant Unity) first began organizing in the countryside in the early 1970s more than 300,000 rural peasants left the Guatemalan altiplano every year to work on plantations on the Pacific coast to supplement their minuscule earnings. The CUC was the first Indian-led national labor organization and the first to unite ladino workers and Indian farmers in a struggle for better working conditions.[39]

On February 4, 1976, a devastating 7.5 Mw earthquake shook Guatemala. Over 23,000 Guatemalans perished in the disaster and close to a million were left without adequate housing. The earthquake had a political effect as well: the visible incapacity and corruption of the government to deal with the effects of the catastrophe led to a rise in independent organizing and left many survivors deeply critical of the government. The political system was ineffective to ensure the welfare of the populace. In the aftermath of the earthquake, more citizens wanted infrastructural reforms, and many saw it as the government's responsibility to invest in these improvements. In the poor barrios disproportionately affected by the quake, due to poor infrastructure, neighborhood groups helped to rescue victims or dig out the dead, distribute water, food and reconstruction materials, and prevent looting by criminals.[40] The political pressures generated in the aftermath of the earthquake put greater pressure on the military government of Guatemala to induce reforms.

Escalation of violence: 1976-1980

Despite the political opening under the Laugerud regime, the wealthy land elites, mass business community, and elements of the military and security forces began to muster opposition to social reforms. They felt increasingly threatened by the mass movement and the government's decision to work with it. A new insurgency started to develop and spread in Guatemala, known as the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). Unlike the predominantly Ladino insurgency active in the 1960s and the earlier part of the decade, the EGP had its base in the predominantly Mayan northern regions of the country. In 1975, the EGP assassinated Luis Arenas, a military commissioner and prominent large landowner in the Reina Zone. The government retaliated with selective repression. The repression began to escalate in March 1976 with a new counterinsurgency offensive in Quiché Department, in which church and cooperative workers were kidnapped and disappeared. In 1976 and 1977, 68 cooperative workers were killed by government forces in Quiché.[41]

The small-scale counterinsurgency in Quiche was accompanied by an assassination campaign against prominent figures in the mass movement, as well as activists and labor union organizers. At the height of the movement, workers at the largest Coca-Cola plant in Guatemala City formed a union to press the management for pay raises; they also organized a series of strikes. During the strikes, many of the laborers were severely beaten by the Ambulant Military Police and union leaders were assassinated.[42] In February 1977, two union members were machine gunned to death directly outside of the Coca-Cola plant, after allegedly receiving death threats from the Coca-Cola company's American manager, John C. Trotter.[43]

The increasing repression was compounded by the election of Fernando Romeo Lucas García on March 7, 1978. The election of Lucas Garcia led to a full return to counterinsurgency, effectively undoing the reforms made under Laugerud. In the period following the election of Garcia, but prior to his inauguration, the army acquired a sense of autonomy; it began to act independently of presidential mandate. Military officials reacted strongly because they watched the Somoza regime in Nicaragua being weakened by an alliance between a mass movement and the Sandinista insurgency. The new administration wanted to eradicate the opposition before it grew in strength. The military leadership gradually became more hostile toward the indigenous population, which had emerged as the most vocal demographic in the mass movement.[44]

Due to its repressive activities, the Guatemalan government became increasing isolated internationally. In 1977, the Jimmy Carter Administration announced a suspension of US military aid and training programs to Guatemala, citing the government as a "gross and consistent human rights violator" while noting that the situation had been improving under the administration of president Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García. The continuing territorial dispute between Britain and Guatemala over the sovereignty of Belize contributed to the US suspension of aid. Despite this prohibition, US training, funds and military support for the Guatemalan army continued without congressional oversight. Between fiscal year 1978 and fiscal year 1980 (the years for which the Carter administration can be held responsible), the US delivered approximately $8.5 million in direct military assistance to Guatemala, mostly Foreign Military Sales credits, as well as export licensing for commercial arms sales worth $1.8 million, a rate which differed very little from that of the Nixon and Ford administrations.[45][46]

The ongoing repression escalated dramatically following the election of Lucas Garcia, as state security forces and government-organized paramilitaries began to engage in increasingly widespread kidnappings, killings and disappearances to combat and break up the mass movement, often targeting the poor indigenous population. The administrator of a large cemetery in Guatemala City informed the press that in the first half of 1978, more than 760 unidentified bodies had arrived at the cemetery, all apparent victims of death squad violence.[47]

On May 29, 1978, the Guatemalan army carried out a large massacre in the central square of Panzós, Alta Verapaz. In the plaza, a crowd of 700 Kekchi Indians had gathered to protest land exploitation by investors who planned to mine the area's mineral wealth, including large nickel and petroleum reserves. When the demonstrators reached the plaza near the town hall, a unit of the elite Guatemalan special forces (Kaibiles) opened fire on the unarmed crowd with Galil rifles. As many as 150 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack.[48] This became known as the 'Panzos Massacre.' This was the first in a series of spectacular acts of military violence in the years that followed the election of Lucas Garcia.

On August 4, 1978 high school and university students, along with other popular movement sectors, organized the mass movement's first urban protest of the Lucas García period. The new minister of the interior under President Lucas Garcia, Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz, promised to break up any protests done without government permission. Having refused to ask for permission, the protesters were met by the Pelotón Modelo (Model Platoon) of the National Police. Employing new anti-riot gear donated by the United States Government, Platoon agents surrounded marchers and tear-gassed them. Students were forced to retreat and dozens of people, mostly school-aged adolescents, were hospitalized.[49]

Overt acts of state violence, such as the massacre at Panzos, the use of force against protesters in the city (resulting in hundreds of deaths by the end of 1978), and increasing attacks by death squads, resulted in the formation of a new sector of the mass movement known as the Democratic Front Against Repression.[50] However, this proved to have no effect on the repressive character of the Lucas government, and by 1979, the repression was approaching the levels that it had been at during the late 1960s and early 1970s.[51]

In the first ten months of 1979, the Guatemalan press reported 3,252 disappearances, while Amnesty International documented an additional 2,000 killings between mid-1978 and 1980.[52] The daily number of killings by official and unofficial security forces increased from an average of 20 to 30 in 1979 to a conservative estimate of 30 to 40 daily in 1980. Human rights sources estimated 5,000 Guatemalans were killed by the government for "political reasons" in 1980 alone, making it the worst human rights violator in the hemisphere after El Salvador.[53][54] In a report titled Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder, Amnesty International stated, "Between January and November of 1980, some 3,000 people described by government representatives as "subversives" and "criminals" were either shot on the spot in political assassinations or seized and murdered later; at least 364 others seized in this period have not yet been accounted for." [55]

In early 1980, major multinational firms discovered petroleum deposits estimated to yield up to 4,000,000 barrels worth of oil in the Altiplano. With the acquiescence of major multinational corporations, the security forces began forcibly evicting indigenous peasants from their land, which had been in their possession for centuries. The forced evictions were accompanied by the use of violence, and peasants were killed in the process.[42] On January 31, 1980 a group of displaced K'iche' and Ixil peasant farmers occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to protest the kidnapping and murder of peasants in Uspantán by elements of the Guatemalan Army. In the subsequent police raid, over the protests of the Spanish ambassador, the police attacked the building with incendiary explosives. A fire ensued as police prevented those inside of the embassy from exiting the building. In all, 36 people were killed in the fire. The funeral of the victims (including as yet obscure Rigoberta Menchú's father, Vicente Menchú), attracted hundreds of thousands of mourners, and a new guerrilla group was formed commemorating the date, the Frente patriotico 31 de enero (Patriotic Front of 31 January). The incident has been called "the defining event" of the Guatemalan Civil War.[56] The Guatemalan government issued a statement claiming that its forces had entered the embassy at the request of the Spanish Ambassador, and that the occupiers of the embassy, whom they referred to as "terrorists," had "sacrificed the hostages and immolated themselves afterward." Ambassador Cajal denied the claims of the Guatemalan government and Spain immediately terminated diplomatic relations with Guatemala, calling the action a violation of "the most elementary norms of international law."[57] Relations between Spain and Guatemala were not normalized until September 22, 1984.

The repression and excessive force used by the government against the opposition was such that it became source of contention within Lucas Garcia's administration itself. This contention within the government caused Lucas Garcia's Vice President Francisco Villagrán Kramer to resign from his position on September 1, 1980. In his resignation, Kramer cited his disapproval of the government's human rights record as one of the primary reasons for his resignation. He then went into voluntary exile in the United States, taking a position in the Legal Department of the Inter-American Development Bank.[58]

The large-scale and increasingly overt selective repression largely succeeded in the objective of dis-articulating the mass movement, as it became blatantly apparent to its constituency that even non-violent resistance to the government would be met with reprisals by the security forces. With the mass movement coming under attack, many abandoned the movement and turned to more aggressive forms of resistance, thus, the armed insurgency began to grow dramatically and increase the scale of its attacks. In addition to the EGP, paramilitary organizations such as the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA) as well as groups active in the initial phase of the civil war such as FAR and the PGT also began to reorganize and mobilize against the government, expanding their presence in Guatemala's interior. By late 1979, the EGP controlled a large amount of territory in the Ixil Triangle in El Quiche, holding many demonstrations in Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal.[59] The insurgent groups also began to elicit foreign support, primarily from Cuba. Seeing common cause, the insurgent movements began to strengthen their interrelationships and form tighter alliances. In 1979, the PGT, FAR and EGP formed a tripartite alliance, which was formalized in October 1980 as a precondition for Cuban-backing.[60]

In 1980, guerrilla operations on both the urban and rural fronts greatly intensified, with the insurgency carrying out a number of overt acts of armed propaganda and assassinations of prominent right wing Guatemalans and landowners. In 1980, armed insurgents assassinated prominent Ixil landowner Enrique Brol, and president of the CACIF (Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations) Alberto Habie.[61] Encouraged by guerrilla advances elsewhere in Central America, the Guatemalan insurgents, especially the EGP, began to quickly expand their influence through a wide geographic area and across many different ethnic groups, thus broadening the appeal of the insurgent movement and providing it with a larger popular base.[62]

Despite advances by the insurgency through 1979 and into 1980, the insurgency made a series of fatal strategic errors. The successes made by the revolutionary forces in Nicaragua against the Somoza regime combined with the insurgency's own successes made against the Lucas government led rebel leaders to falsely conclude that a military equilibrium had been reached in Guatemala, thus the insurgency underestimated the military strength of the government.[63] The insurgency subsequently found itself overwhelmed, and was unable to secure its advances and protect the indigenous civilian population from massive counter-offensives by the security forces.

Increased insurgency and repression: 1981-1983

File:Eternal-Spring in Quiché.jpg

Dead suspected guerrillas, held at army garrison, Nebaj, Quiché. Electronic Briefing Book No. 373, National Security Archive ©Jean-Marie Simon

In early 1981, the insurgency mounted the largest offensive in the country's history. This was followed by an additional offensive towards the end of the year, in which many civilians were forced to participate by the insurgents. Villagers worked with the insurgency to sabotage roads and army establishments, and destroy anything of strategic value to the armed forces.[64] By 1981, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 members of Guatemala's indigenous community actively supported the insurgency. Guatemalan Army Intelligence (G-2) estimated a minimum 360,000 indigenous supporters of the EGP alone.[65] In response to the increased actions, the Guatemalan Army began mobilizing for a large-scale rural counter-offensive. The Lucas government instituted a policy of forced recruitment and began organizing a "task-force" model for fighting the insurgency, by which strategic mobile forces were drawn from larger military brigades.[66] To curtail civilian participation in the insurgency and provide greater distinction between "hostile" and compliant communities in the countryside, the army resorted to a series of "civic action" measures. The army under Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García (the President’s brother) began to search out communities in which to organize and recruit civilians into pro-government paramilitary patrols, who would combat the insurgents and kill their collaborators. In 1980 and 1981, the United States under Reagan administration delivered $10.5 million worth of Bell 212 and Bell 412 helicopters and $3.2 million worth of military trucks and jeeps to the army.[67] In 1981, the Reagan administration also approved a $2 million covert CIA program for Guatemala.[68] With the coordination of the CIA and the Pentagon, ten U.S. ex-Belgian M41 Walker Bulldog tanks, worth $36 million, were delivered to the Guatemalan Armed Forces via the Dominican Republic in late 1981.[69] The Guatemalan Army's first major counteroffensive took place in mid-1981 in the mountainous coffee-growing coastal regions and in Chimaltenango. Its well-executed strategy was directed at terrorizing the civilian population to decimate support for the insurgency. The armed forces initiated a powerful scorched-earth campaign in November 1981 under the code-name "Operación Ceniza," or "Operation Ashes," which lasted through 1982. The first phase of the operation was to "separate and isolate the insurgents from the civilian population."[70] The second phase of "Operación Ceniza" deployed 15,000 troops on a gradual sweep through the predominantly-indigenous Altiplano region, comprising the departments of El Quiché and Huehuetenango.[71][page needed]

Large numbers of civilians were killed or displaced in the Guatemalan military's counterinsurgency operations. To alienate the insurgents from their civilian base, the army carried out large-scale mass killing of unarmed civilians, burned villages and crops, and butchered animals, destroying survivors' means of livelihood. On April 15, 1981, EGP rebels attacked a Guatemalan Army patrol from the village of Cocob near Nebaj, killing five personnel. On April 17, 1981, a reinforced company of Airborne troops was deployed to the village. They discovered fox holes, guerrillas and a hostile population. The local people appeared to fully support the guerrillas. "The soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved."[72] The army killed 65 civilians, including 34 children, five adolescents, 23 adults and two elderly people.[73] Sources with the human rights office of the Catholic Church estimated the death toll from military repression in 1981 at 11,000, with most of the victims indigenous peasants of the Guatemalan highlands.[74] Other sources and observers put the death toll due to government repression in 1981 at between 9,000 and 13,500.[75]

As army repression intensified in the countryside, relations between the Guatemalan military establishment and the Lucas Garcia regime worsened. Professionals within the Guatemalan military considered the Lucas approach counterproductive, on grounds that the Lucas government's strategy of military action and systematic terror overlooked the social and ideological causes of the insurgency while radicalizing the civilian population. Additionally, Lucas went against the military's interests by endorsing his defense minister, Angel Anibal Guevara, as a candidate in the March 1982 presidential elections.[76]

On March 23, 1982, junior officers under the command of General Efraín Ríos Montt staged a coup d'état and deposed General Romeo Lucas Garcia. The coup was not supported by any entities within the Lucas government aside from the junior officers involved in engineering the coup. At the time of the coup, the majority of Lucas Garcia's senior officers were reportedly unaware of any previous coup plotting on the part of the junior officers or any other entity. General Lucas was reportedly prepared to resist the coup, and could have easily opposed the coup with his own contingent of troops stationed at the presidential palace, but was coerced into surrendering by being shown his mother and sister held with rifles to their heads.[77]

In the aftermath of the coup, a junta was established with coup-leader Efraín Ríos Montt at its head. Although largely unsupported within the Lucas Government, the coup was initially welcomed post hoc, due to the constant cycle of electoral frauds and corruption within the government over the years. Citizens hoped that the junta would decrease the violence and improve the human rights situation. This changed when the junta initiated a "state of siege" in April 1982 within the framework of the so-called 'National Plan for Security and Development.' The "state of siege" led to further restrictions of civil liberties, formally suspended the constitution, and escalated the counterinsurgency in the countryside. "The killings have stopped," declared U.S. Ambassador Fredric Chapin. "The Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light."[78] In April 1982 (one month after Efraín Ríos Montt took power), CIA budget allocations for Guatemala increased by an additional $2.5 million.[79] Within two months after seizing power, Ríos Montt worked to strengthen his personal power and began eliminating those officers which he believed to be involved in counter-coup plotting. One particularly cohesive group of officers opposed to Ríos was the Guatemalan Military Academy promotion class number 73. To intimidate these officers and stifle plans for a counter-coup, Ríos Montt ordered the arrest and investigation of three of its most prominent members: Captains Mario López Serrano, Roberto Enrique Letona Hora and Otto Pérez Molina. He threatened to expose evidence of their corruption if they continued to oppose him.[80] On July 9, 1982, Ríos Montt forced two members of the junta to resign, leaving him in complete control of the government, as both the de facto head of the armed forces and minister of defense.

During Ríos Montt's presidency, the military of Guatemala began to restructure and bolster the effectiveness of its counterinsurgency program in the highlands, which had originally been the catalyst behind the March 23rd coup. The military conceived and implemented "Victoria 82" (Operation Victory 1982), which combined the scorched-earth and killing strategies of "Operación Ceniza" with highly effective forms of population control, including "food for work" programs, and militarized "model villages" to resettle refugees displaced by state violence. A major component of "Victoria 82" was "Plan Sofia," an operation designed to "exterminate the subversive elements in the area - Quiché"[81] Ríos Montt also expanded on the "civic action" strategy, which began under Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García, and implemented using civilian militias on a country-wide scale. The civilian paramilitary bands were renamed "civilian self-defense patrols" (PAC), and the army began conscripting large portions of the rural civilian population into the militias. This often left families struggling to support themselves and without critical members.

The use of state-terror and indiscriminate repression reached its highest levels during Ríos Montt's presidency, mostly within the framework of the rural counterinsurgency. The CIIDH database documented 18,000 state killings in the year 1982. In April 1982 alone (General Efraín Ríos Montt's first full month in office), the military committed 3,330 documented killings, a rate of approximately 111 per day. Historians and analysts estimate the total death toll could exceed this number by the tens of thousands.[82] In the remote Guatemalan highlands, where the military classified those most isolated as being more accessible to the guerrillas, it identified many villages and communities as "red" and targeted them for annihilation. This was especially true in El Quiche, where the army had a well-documented belief that the entire indigenous population of the 'Ixil Triangle' was pro-EGP.[83] During Ríos Montt's tenure, the army's abuse of the civilian population approached overkill. Civilians are reported to have been beheaded, garroted, burned alive, bludgeoned to death, or hacked to death with machetes. Soldiers killed children in front of their parents by smashing their heads against trees and rocks.[84] In many cases, the Guatemalan military specifically targeted children and the elderly. Amnesty International documented that the rate of rape of civilian women by the military increased during this period, including rape of pregnant women.[85]

Although in the early 1980s violence was most intense in rural Guatemala, urban regions also suffered increased state violence. In February 1983, a then-confidential CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence,” with an increasing number of kidnappings (particularly of educators and students) and a concomitant increase in the number of corpses deposited in ditches and gullies, previously a characteristic of state-terror under the Lucas Garcia regime. The cable traced the wave of repression to an October 1982 meeting by Ríos Montt with officers of the Security Section of the Presidential Staff (known as "Archivos") in which he said, “known guerrillas will no longer be remanded to the special courts,” and the security forces were free to “apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.”[86][87]

Mejia Victores regime and democratic transition: 1983-1986

File:Guatemalan Death Squad Dossier.jpg

Guatemalan military intelligence dossier on 183 "disappeared" persons between 1983 and 1985. Military logbook from the National Security Archive.[88]

Ríos Montt was deposed on 8 August 1983 by his Minister of Defense, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores. Mejía became de facto president and justified the coup, saying that "religious fanatics" were abusing their positions in the government and also because of "official corruption". Ríos Montt remained in politics, founding the Guatemalan Republican Front party in 1989. Elected to Congress, he was elected President of Congress in 1995 and 2000.[18]

By the time Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores assumed power, the counterinsurgency under Lucas Garcia and Ríos Montt had largely succeeded in its objective of detaching the insurgency from its civilian support base. Additionally, Guatemalan military intelligence (G-2) had succeeded in infiltrating most of the political institutions. It eradicated opponents in the government through terror and selective assassinations. The counterinsurgency program had militarized Guatemalan society, creating a fearful atmosphere of terror that suppressed most public agitation and insurgency. The military had consolidated its power in virtually all sectors of society.[89]

In 1983, indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú published a memoir of her life during that period, I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which gained worldwide attention. She was later awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in favor of broader social justice. When some autobiographical details in the book were challenged, the Nobel Committee stated that they did not consider this grounds for rescinding the award for her work.[90] Her memoir drew international attention to Guatemala and the nature of its institutional terrorism. Due to international pressure, as well as pressure from other Latin American nations, General Mejía Victores allowed a gradual return to democracy in Guatemala. On 1 July 1984 an election was held for representatives to a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic constitution. On 30 May 1985, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took effect immediately. General elections were scheduled, and civilian candidate Vinicio Cerezo was elected as president. Revival of democratic government did not end the "disappearances" and death squad killings, as extrajudicial state violence had become an integral part of the political culture.[91]

After the August 1983 coup, both the US intelligence community and human rights observers noted a decrease in state terror in rural Guatemala, while state terror in the cities increased to higher levels than under Ríos Montt. Additionally, as the levels of wholesale extrajudicial killings and massacres decreased, the use of abduction and forced disappearance increased proportionately. In Mejia Victores's first full month in power, the number of documented monthly kidnappings jumped from 12 in August to 56 in September. The victims included a number of US Agency for International Development employees, officials from moderate and leftist political parties, and Catholic priests.[92] In a report to the United Nations, Guatemala's Human Rights Commission reported 713 extrajudicial killings and 506 disappearances of Guatemalans in the period from January to September 1984.[93] A secret United States Department of Defense report from March 1986 noted that from August 8, 1983 to December 31, 1985, there were a total of 2,883 recorded kidnappings (3.29 daily); and kidnappings averaged a total of 137 a month through 1984 (a total of approximately 1,644 cases). The report linked these violations to a systematic program of abduction and killing by the security forces under Mejía Víctores, noting, "while criminal activity accounts for a small percentage of the cases, and from time to time individuals ‘disappear’ to go elsewhere, the security forces and paramilitary groups are responsible for most kidnappings. Insurgent groups do not now normally use kidnapping as a political tactic."[94] Part of the modus operandi of government repression during the Mejia government involved interrogating victims at military bases, police stations, or government safe houses. Information about alleged connections with insurgents was “extracted through torture.” The security forces used the information to make joint military/police raids on suspected guerrilla safe-houses throughout Guatemala City. In the process, the government secretly captured hundreds of individuals who were never seen again, or whose bodies were later found, showing signs of torture and mutilation. Such activities were often carried out by specialized units of the National Police.[95] Between 1984 and 1986, the secret police (G-2) maintained an operations center for the counterinsurgency programs in southwest Guatemala at the southern airbase at Retalhuleu. There, the G-2 operated a clandestine interrogation center for suspected insurgents and collaborators. Captured suspects were reportedly detained in water-filled pits along the perimeter of the base, which were covered with cages. In order to avoid drowning, prisoners were forced to hold onto the cages over the pits. The bodies of prisoners tortured to death and live prisoners marked for disappearance were thrown out of IAI-201 Aravas by the Guatemalan Air Force over the Pacific Ocean ("death flights").[96] In January 1984, Americas Watch released its third report on Guatemala; it reported on the regular use of torture, stating that “The government of Guatemala continues to engage in the systematic use of torture as a means of gathering intelligence and coercing confessions. There is also evidence that torture is used for exemplary purposes, to instill fear among those who see themselves as potential victims of arrest or abduction. … We do find that between the Ríos Montt and Meija administrations there has been no appreciable difference where the use of torture is concerned. “ [97]

Cerezo administration: new constitution, but continued violence: 1986-1992

Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian politician and the presidential candidate of the Guatemalan Christian Democracy, won the first election held under the new constitution with almost 70% of the vote, and took office on 14 January 1986.[18] A Guatemalan political leader said of the country at the time: "The army is not subordinate to civil authority, it is parallel to it. Civilians go to the army with their hats in their hands."[98]

President Cerezo announced at his inauguration that his top priorities were to end the political violence and establish the rule of law. Reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo (court-ordered protection), creation of a legislative human rights committee, and the establishment in 1987 of the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. The Supreme Court also embarked on a series of reforms to fight corruption and improve legal system efficiency. Death squads continued "disappearing" and assassinating trade unionists, however.[99] The guerrillas lost much of their support because they were unable to protect the indigenous people in rural areas from the armed forces.[100]

With Cerezo's election, the military returned to the more traditional role of providing internal security, specifically by fighting armed insurgents. GAM, Guatemala's internationally recognized human rights group, pressed the government for an inquiry into political disappearances, although their appeals were largely ignored. Because the military's influence was so pervasive in Guatemalan society, the military had leverage over the Cerezo government, rendering it powerless to hold those responsible for abuses accountable. President Cerezo assured the armed forces that no one would be mentioned as being responsible. The Christian Science Monitor suggested reports of GAM's request for an inquiry may have been politically motivated, and noted the group "represents only a tiny minority, mostly peasant Indians from the countryside long ignored by the political process anyway."[101]

In the first twelve months of the Cerezo government, the Guatemalan Commission for Human Rights (CDHG) recorded 126 disappearances and 463 extrajudicial killings.[102] After the Central American Peace Accords in 1987, the human rights situation in Guatemala worsened, with more death squad killings and disappearances taking place than in 1985. Rural areas were essentially ruled by a de facto military dictatorship. Following a failed coup attempt in May 1988, state terror and repression rose to levels similar to the 1972-1982 period. The coup attempt, carried out by right-wing military personnel, was terminated by the Army High Command. But, the Army made President Cerezo's tenure dependent on his agreeing to implement 23 of 25 demands by the coup conspirators. These included an end to peace talks with the guerrillas, a halt to establishing a police force under civilian control, cancellation of modest state-sponsored land reform, and a suppression of organizations representing human rights, peasants and unions.[103] The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) named Guatemala the worst human rights violator in Latin America for 1988, 1989, and 1990.[104][105][106]

In June 1990, U.S. President George H.W. Bush announced an "Enterprise for the Americas Initiative" to improve the investment climate by creating "a hemisphere-wide free trade zone."[107] This was intended to contribute to improving area economies.

The final two years of Cerezo's government were marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government's inability to deal with many of the nation's problems – such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence – contributed to popular discontent. Presidential and congressional elections were held on 11 November 1990. After the second-round ballot, Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías was inaugurated on 14 January 1991, completing the first transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another. The candidates were limited to the right and the extreme right.[108] Because his Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) Party gained only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano entered into a tenuous alliance with the Christian Democrats and the National Union of the Center (UCN).

That year marked a first for Central America, with the rise of democratic governments. "For the first time, all five of the countries are led by presidents who were elected in contests widely considered free and fair," the Washington Post reported from Guatemala City. It noted that "conservative politicians in Central America traditionally represented the established order despite their countries' grossly distorted income patterns. But the wave of democracy that has swept the region in recent years appears to be shifting politicians' priorities," and observed that, "The new leaders...are committed to free-market economics." The Post explains, "Neither in the plan nor in the Declaration of Antigua was there any mention of land reform or suggestion of new government social welfare programs to help the poor." Rather, they are adopting "a trickle-down approach to aid the poor." "The idea is to help the poor without threatening the basic power structure," a Central American economist observes.[109]

In the same month, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (CDHG) reported that 125 bodies were found in different locations of the country. More than half appeared to have been tortured. An additional 73 people were extrajudicially executed by the security forces, and another 29 were "disappeared."[110] The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) reports that extreme poverty in Guatemala increased from 45% in 1985 to 67% in 1989.[111] According to an international study published by ACAN-EFE, 20,000 Guatemalans died of hunger every year.[112] Dogs, vultures and hundreds of people reportedly fought over food each day at Guatemala City's garbage dump. An entire town developed around the dump. One Guatemalan living in the area said that the people had been forced off their land when the landlords wanted to grow sugar cane.[113]

In 1992, the atmosphere of terror and fear was maintained by the security forces through selective assassinations, disappearances, and torture of trade unionists, human rights advocates, members of the university, journalists, and anyone who challenged the status quo. President Jorge Serrano strengthened the military's authority over the security services, despite promises to organize a civilian police force. Peace talks continued throughout the year but were hindered by human rights abuses, although there was a partial agreement on the civil defense forces. The government and refugee representatives reached an agreement on conditions for repatriation. The agreement included the right for refugees to return to their areas of origin where they would be given land. They would also be exempt from the draft for 3 years and would not be forced into civil defense forces. The agreement was followed by the disappearance and subsequent execution, apparently by the army, of a peasant in a hamlet where the first repatriation of refugees was set to begin a few months later. The refugees said that if there was another army killing in their hamlet they would all flee to Mexico.[114]

Serrano government dissolution and recovery

On 25 May 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly to fight corruption. The autogolpe (or autocoup) failed due to unified, strong protests by most elements of Guatemalan society, international pressure, and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against the attempted takeover. Serrano fled the country. An Intelligence Oversight Board report (secret at the time) states that the CIA helped in stopping this autocoup.[115]

Pursuant to the 1985 constitution, the Guatemalan Congress on 5 June 1993 elected de León, the Human Rights Ombudsman, to complete Serrano's presidential term. He was not a member of any political party; lacking a political base but with strong popular support, he launched an ambitious anti-corruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court, demanding the resignations of all members of the two bodies. Shortly after he took office, his cousin, leader of the liberal party and two-time presidential candidate, was assassinated.

Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the administration and Congress. This package of constitutional reforms was approved by popular referendum on 30 January 1995. In August 1994, a new Congress was elected to complete the unexpired term. Controlled by the anti-corruption parties: the populist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) headed by Ríos Montt, and the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), the new Congress began to move away from the corruption that characterized its predecessors.

Renewed peace process (1994 to 1996)

Under de León, the peace process, now brokered by the United Nations, took on new life. The government and the URNG signed agreements on human rights (March 1994), resettlement of displaced persons (June 1994), historical clarification (June 1994), and indigenous rights (March 1995). They also made significant progress on a socio-economic and agrarian agreement.

National elections for president, Congress, and municipal offices were held in November 1995. With almost 20 parties competing in the first round, the presidential election came down to a 7 January 1996 run-off in which PAN candidate Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen defeated Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of the FRG by just over 2% of the vote. Arzú won because of his strength in Guatemala City, where he had previously served as mayor, and in the surrounding urban area. Portillo won all of the rural departments except Petén.

Under the Arzú administration, peace negotiations were concluded. The government and the guerrilla umbrella organization URNG, which became a legal party, signed peace accords in December 1996 ending the 36-year internal conflict. The General Secretary of the URNG, Comandante Rolando Morán, and President Álvaro Arzú jointly received the UNESCO Peace Prize for their efforts to end the civil war and attaining the peace agreement. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1094 on 20 January 1997 deploying military observers to Guatemala to monitor the implementation of the peace agreements.


Human rights abuses

In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery..Acts such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera (internal organs) of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts, were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims, but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.

--The Commission for Historical Clarification, 1999[116]

The roads began to stink, there were so many dead bodies.

--Juan, a churchman in Guatemala, 1985[117]


Exhumation of a mass grave in Comalapa, Chimaltenango. Electronic Briefing Book No. 363, Photograph courtesy of USAID, National Security Archive, George Washington University

By the end of the war, an estimated 200,000 people had been killed, including 40,000-50,000 "disappeared." The overwhelming majority of those killed were victims of official-sanctioned terror by government forces.[116] The internal conflict is described in the report of the Archbishop's Office for Human Rights (ODHAG). ODHAG attributed almost 90.0% of the atrocities and more than 400 massacres to the Guatemalan army (and paramilitary), and less than 5% of the atrocities to the guerrillas (including 16 massacres).

In a report in 1999, the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) stated that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, the guerrillas for 3%.[118] These incidents peaked in 1982. 83% of the victims were Mayan peoples.[119] Both sides used terror as a deliberate policy.[13]

Guatemalan intelligence was directed and executed mainly by two bodies: the Intelligence Section of the Army, subsequently called Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the National Defense and generally known as "D-2"; and the intelligence unit called Presidential Security Department, also known as "La Regional" or the "Archivo". The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stated that the intelligence services in Guatemala have been responsible for multiple human rights violations.[120] The Truth Commission writes that their activity included the

"use of illegal detention centres or 'clandestine prisons', which existed in nearly all Army facilities, in many police installations and even in homes and on other private premises. In these places, victims were not only deprived of their liberty arbitrarily, but they were almost always subjected to interrogation, accompanied by torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In the majority of cases, the detainees disappeared or were executed."[13]

The CEH stated that at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerrilla groups have the military potential necessary to pose an imminent threat to the State. The number of insurgent combatants was too small to be able to compete in with the Army, which had more troops and superior weaponry, as well as better training and co-ordination. The State and the Army were well aware that the insurgents’ military capacity did not represent a real threat to Guatemala’s political order. The CEH concludes that the State deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency, a practice justified by the concept of the "internal enemy." The inclusion of all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist, served to justify numerous and serious crimes. Faced with widespread political, socio-economic and cultural opposition, the State resorted to military operations directed towards the physical annihilation or absolute intimidation of the opposition, through a plan of repression carried out mainly by the Army and national security forces. On this basis the CEH explains why the vast majority of the victims of the acts committed by the State were not combatants in guerrilla groups, but civilians.[13]

For more than two decades, Human Rights Watch has reported on Guatemala.[121] A report from 1984 discussed “the murder of thousands by a military government that maintains its authority by terror.[122] HRW has described extraordinarily cruel actions by the armed forces, mostly against unarmed civilians.[121] For example, more than 160 civilians were massacred in 1982 by government soldiers in the village of Las Dos Erres. The abuses included “burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days. This was not an isolated incident. Rather it was one of over 400 massacres documented by the truth commission – some of which, according to the commission, constituted "acts of genocide."[121]

Reparations and reconciliation

The CEH’s final report recommended several measures to promote reparation and reconciliation, including the creation of a National Reparations Program, searches for the disappeared, and exhumations of victims to bring closure to families. The report also called for an official public apology from both the president and the ex-leadership of the URNG, the creation of monuments, a holiday to commemorate victims, and the widespread distribution of the report to educate about the war and promote a culture of “mutual respect.” The CEH report advocated social and agrarian reform, specifically declaring the need to reform the judicial system and address racism and social inequality.[123] Of these recommendations, only a few have been implemented by 2012. The National Reparations Program (Spanish: Programa Nacional de Resarcimiento, or PNR) was created in 2003, mandated to focus on “material restitution, economic restitution, cultural restitution, dignifying victims and psycho-social reparations.”[124] According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, as of March 2012, 52,333 victims had been registered with the PNR and of those, more than 24,000 victims and/or families had received monetary reparations for crimes including rape, torture, execution and forced disappearance. Some other measures, such as naming streets after victims and creating a “Day of Dignity” to commemorate victims, have been instituted. PNR has primarily worked on economic reparation.[124]

Following the release of the CEH report in 1999, President Álvaro Arzú apologized for the government’s role in the atrocities of the war.[125] Ex-leaders of the URNG also apologized and asked forgiveness of the victims.[126] In 2012, the current president Otto Pérez Molina denied that there had been genocide in Guatemala, arguing that it was impossible as a large portion of the army was indigenous.[127]

The report was disseminated country-wide, but only parts of it were translated into Mayan languages. In addition, high rates of illiteracy have made it difficult for the general population to read the written report.[128]

Exhumations of victims have been pursued throughout Guatemala, providing some truth through discovery of bodies. Several NGOs have been created to provide psychological support to families witnessing an exhumation, and forensic groups have helped with identification of remains. This has provided both closure for some families as they locate loved ones, and potential evidence for future government prosecution of crimes.[128]

While Guatemala has achieved some forms of reparation, it faces significant instability and social inequality. Many of the estimated 1.5 million people displaced by the civil war have remained displaced. One million people migrated to the United States. In addition, in 2005, there were 5,338 murders in a total population of 12 million.[129] The high levels of violence and instability in Guatemala are exemplified by a clash between protesters and police in October 2012, when police opened fire on a group of protesting teachers, killing seven.[130] The country still has high rates of poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition.[131]

Prosecutions and convictions

In December 1996 Guatemala passed the National Reconciliation Law as part of peace negotiations between the government and the URNG. The law provided for amnesty to be given for both political crimes against the state and crimes committed by actors of the state for the purpose of repressing the opposition. While this law created serious barriers for the prosecution of war criminals, it excluded acts of torture, genocide or "forced disappearance," and some prosecutions were still possible.[132]

In 1999, paramilitary Candido Noriega was convicted and sentenced to 50 years for his role in the deaths of dozens whilst employed by the Guatemalan army.[133]

Following the release of the CEH’s report in February 1999, the Center for Legal Action and Human Rights declared that it would prosecute General José Efraín Ríos Montt, leader during the war’s bloodiest period in the early 1980s. Montt was then immune from prosecution as a member of the Congress, but upon retiring in January 2012, he was immediately put under house arrest. By June 2012, he was in trial.[134] In August 2009, a court in Chimaltenango sentenced Felipe Cusanero, a local farmer, to 150 years in prison for his part in the "disappearance" of half a dozen indigenous members of a Mayan farming community over the two-year period of 1982–1984. He had been part of a network of paramilitaries who gave information to the army about suspected leftists living in their villages during Guatemala's counterinsurgency campaign.[133][135][136] He was the first person to ever be convicted for carrying out acts of forced disappearance during the Civil War.[135][136][137] He appeared before three judges to face his sentence.[137] He received a 25-year prison sentence for each of his victims.[133][135] It was hailed as a "landmark" sentence.[133][135][136] Hilarion López, the father of one of the victims, said: "We weren't looking for vengeance but for the truth and justice".[135][137] The families have called on Cusanero to tell them where the bodies of their loved ones are.[133] Cusanero was photographed being carried away by police afterward.[133] By August 2011, four former officers from the Guatemalan Special Forces (Kaibiles) were convicted and sentenced to 6,060 years in prison each for their involvement in the Dos Erres Massacre.[138] In March 2012, a fifth former soldier, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, was convicted and sentenced to 6,060 years (after having been extradited from the United States) for his role in Dos Erres.[139]

Foreign involvement

US involvement

The "dirty little conflicts" of our time are not pretty, but they are critical to Western security, and if we abrogate our ability to engage in low-level conflict, we lose our capability to...maintain a world order compatible with our national interests and security. The plain fact is that the United States is at war, and in wartime the only thing that counts is winning.

— --"Fighting Terrorism and 'Dirty Little Wars'," Dr Neil C. Livingstone, Air University Review, 1984[140]

Photo still from U.S. Army film shot in 1965. U.S. military advisors confer as Col. Carlos Arana Osorio and an aide look on.

From the time of the CIA-orchestrated 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état onward through the duration of the civil war, the United States maintained close inter-military relations with both military and civilian governments in Guatemala. For decades, the United States government trained, financed and overhauled the Guatemalan military and security forces. During the civil war, at least 1,552 Guatemalan military officers are verified to have been trained at the United States Army School of the Americas. Close US allies such as Israel and Argentina also sold weapons and provided military training to Guatemala. Additionally, declassified US documents and CIA memos relating to the conflict show that the United States was aware of the Guatemalan military's excesses against civilians during the period in which it was aiding the Guatemalan government.[141] The UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification concluded,

"The United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation."[142]

General Robert Porter, Commander in Chief of the United States Southern Command, summarized the purpose of this support in Congress in 1968, saying that United States military assistance and AID Public Safety projects in Latin America were "an insurance policy protecting our vast private investment in an area of tremendous trade and strategic value to our country."[143]

Charles Maechling Jr., who led U.S. counterinsurgency and internal defense planning from 1961 to 1966, explains that the administration modified the role of the armed forces in Latin America from "hemispheric defense" to "internal security." In 1962, Washington's policy shifted to "direct complicity" in their atrocities to U.S. support for "the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads."[144] The U.S. AID Public Safety program formed security forces to "lend assistance, in cases of emergency, to the owners or administrators of estates, haciendas, agricultural lands, forests and all rural properties . . . observe all activity that tends to inflame passions among the peasant masses or in the rural communities and, when necessary, repress through licit means any disorder that should occur."[145] The U.S. State Department added that the police "first detect discontent among people" and "should serve as one of the major means by which the government assures itself of acceptance by the majority." An effective security force can often deter civil unrest. "Should they not be prepared to do this, 'major surgery' may be redress those threats."[146] U.S. strategy, overall, was preventive counter-subversion. Addressing AID Public Safety graduates in 1965, General Maxwell Taylor, President John F. Kennedy's military and counterterror adviser, said:

In dealing with urban discontent and political unrest...the military has proved less than effective. The outstanding lesson [of the Indochina conflict] is that we should never let another Vietnam-type situation arise again. We were too late in recognizing the extent of the subversive threat. We appreciate now that every young, emerging country must be constantly on the alert, watching for those symptoms which, if allowed to develop unrestrained, may eventually grow into a disastrous situation such as that in South Vietnam. We have learned the need for a strong police force and a strong police intelligence organization to assist in identifying early the symptoms of an incipient subversive situation.

--The U.S. Military Apparatus, 1972[147]

The U.S. Military Mission was instrumental in introducing and implementing the use of para-militarism by the Guatemalan army and security forces. U.S. Army Colonel John Webber referred to it "a technique of counter-terror."[148][149][150][151] U.S. Army journals and counter-terror experts outlined the basic premise of this strategy as "the tactic of intimidating, kidnapping, or assassinating carefully selected members of the opposition in a manner that will reap the maximum psychological benefit," the objective being, "to frighten everyone from collaborating with the guerrilla movement."[152][153]

During the civil war, the CIA collaborated with the Guatemalan D-2, the primary directorate of military intelligence. The CIA's collaboration with D-2 was described by U.S. and Guatemalan operatives, and was confirmed by former Guatemalan heads of state. Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan officer and CIA operative implicated in murders of guerrilla leader Efraín Bamaca Velásquez and Michael Devine, discussed in an interview how the CIA advised and helped to run D-2. He claimed that U.S. agents trained D-2 men. Alpirez described attending CIA sessions at D-2 bases on "contra-subversion" tactics and "how to manage factors of power" to "fortify democracy." The CIA also helped to provide "technical assistance" including communications equipment, computers and special firearms, as well as collaborative use of CIA-owned helicopters that were flown out of a piper hangar at La Aurora civilian airport and from a separate U.S. Air facility. The CIA also supplied the Guatemalan army and D-2 with "civil material assistance," which included medical supplies, Vietnam-era metal jeep parts, compasses and walkie talkies.[154][155] CIA collaboration with D-2 ended in 1995.[156]

Although little training of Guatemalan officers occurred at the SOA in Panama between 1978 and 1985, the United States Army Special Forces continued to instruct Guatemalan officers in "direct action destruction patrols" and "helicopter assault tactics" at the Escuela Politecnica (the National Military Academy), and train Guatemalan army recruits at the Regional Center of Military Training (CREM) in Puerto Castilla, Honduras.[157][158] Jesse Garcia, a 32-year-old Green Beret captain functioning in Guatemala at the time, described his job as "not much different" than that of US advisors in El Salvador in an interview with the New York Times in October 1982.[159]

In an investigative report, American newspaper columnist Jack Anderson revealed in August, 1981, at the height of the aid prohibition, that the United States was using Cuban exiles to train security forces in Guatemala; in this operation, Anderson wrote, the CIA had arranged for "secret training in the finer points of assassination." [160] "What liberal Americans can reasonably expect is that a condition of military help to Guatemala should be an easing of the political persecution of the centre," the Economist observed in 1983.[161]

In fiscal years 1981, 1982 and 1983, overt US military aid deliveries totaled $3.2 million, $4 million and $6.36 million respectively; a combined total of approximately $13.54 million (shipments included vital overhauls for previously acquired Bell UH-1 helicopters and A-37 counterinsurgency aircraft).[162] Under contracts licensed by the US Department of Commerce, twenty three Jet-Ranger helicopters, worth $25 million, were delivered to the Guatemalan armed forces between December 1980 and December 1982 (which shared interchangeable parts with previously acquired units and incoming military spare parts).[163] Other arms provisions made through the US Department of Commerce between 1981 and 1983 included laser aimed sights for automatic rifles, grenade launchers, two transport planes, and eight T-37 trainers. Human Rights Watch in 1984 criticized U.S. President Ronald Reagan for his December 1982 visit to Ríos Montt in Honduras, where Reagan dismissed reports of human rights abuses by prominent human rights organizations while insisting that Ríos Montt was receiving a "bum rap". The organization reported that soon after, the Reagan administration announced that it was dropping a five-year prohibition on arms sales and moreover had "approved a sale of $6.36 million worth of military spare parts," to Ríos Montt and his forces.[164] Human Rights Watch described the degree of U.S. responsibility thus: "In light of its long record of apologies for the government of Guatemala, and its failure to repudiate publicly those apologies even at a moment of disenchantment, we believe that the Reagan Administration shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights practiced by the government of Guatemala."[165]

In 1988-89, the Bush administration strengthened ties with the Guatemalan armed forces. Increased US assistance to the military included approximately 16,000 M-16 assault rifles; the of training Guatemalan paratroopers in marksmanship, tactics and night-patrolling by Green Berets; parachute and jungle-survival training by U.S. Special Forces for Guatemala's elite Kaibil counterinsurgency troops; and training for flying A-37 attack planes and to repair C-47 transport planes.[166] The United States announced that they were using the armed forces in 1990 "to promote economic and political stability" as they were reportedly involved in human rights abuses and in drug trafficking.[167] Meanwhile, the CIA continued to support the Army's war by supplying them with intelligence on guerrillas, farmers, peasants and other opponents. The CIA station chief in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991 was a Cuban American. He had about 20 officers with a budget of about $5 million a year and an equal or greater sum for "liaison" with Guatemalan military. His job included placing and keeping senior Guatemalan officers on his payroll. Among them was Alpirez, who recruited others for the CIA. Alpirez's intelligence unit spied on Guatemalans and is accused by human rights groups of assassinations.[168]

An Intelligence Oversight Board report from 1996 writes that military aid was stopped during the Carter administration but later resumed under the Reagan Administration. "After a civilian government under President Cerezo was elected in 1985, overt non-lethal US military aid to Guatemala resumed. In December 1990, however, largely as a result of the killing of US citizen Michael DeVine by members of the Guatemalan army, the Bush administration suspended almost all overt military aid." "The funds the CIA provided to the Guatemalan liaison services were vital to the D-2 and Archivos." The CIA "continued this aid after the termination of overt military assistance in 1990." "Overall CIA funding levels to the Guatemalan services dropped consistently from about $3.5 million in FY 1989 to about 1 million in 1995." The report writes that "the CIA's liaison relationship with the Guatemalan services also benefited US interests by enlisting the assistance of Guatemala's primary intelligence and security service – the army's directorate of intelligence (D-2) – in areas such as reversing the 'auto-coup" of 1993'" "In the face of strong protests by Guatemalan citizens and the international community (including the United States) and – most importantly – in the face of the Guatemalan army's refusal to support him, President Serrano's Fujimori-style 'auto-coup' failed."[115] On a trip to Guatemala in 1999 after the publication of the Truth Commission report, U.S. President Bill Clinton declared that "It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," and further apologized for "support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report".[169]

Argentine involvement

Military regimes in the South American Southern Cone also provided material support and training to the Guatemalan government. Many of the repressive tactics used by the Guatemalan security forces borrowed extensively from those employed during Operation Condor, especially those used by Argentina during the Dirty War. The military junta in Argentina was a prominent source of both material aid and inspiration to the Guatemalan military, especially during the final two years of the Lucas government. Argentina's involvement with the Guatemalan government fit within the broader context of Operation Charly, a CIA-backed covert operation aimed at providing intelligence training and counterinsurgency assistance to the governments in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as a supplement to U.S. operations in the region.[170] In October 1981, the Guatemalan government and the Argentine military junta formalized secret accords which augmented Argentine participation in government counterinsurgency operations. As part of the agreement, two-hundred Guatemalan officers were dispatched to Buenos Aires to undergo advanced military intelligence training, which included instruction in interrogation. Argentine involvement had initially began in 1980, when the Videla regime dispatched army and naval officers to Guatemala to assist in counterinsurgency activities, under contract from President Romeo Lucas Garcia. In addition to working with the regular security forces, Argentine military advisors as well as a squadron of the notorious Batallón de Inteligencia 601 (Argentina's elite special forces battalion) worked directly with the Lucas government's paramilitary death squads, most notably the Ejercito Secreto Anticommunista (ESA). Argentine military advisors also participated in the Guatemalan army's rural counteroffensive in 1981 during "Operation Ash 81".[171] Argentina's collaboration with the governments in Central America came to an end during the Falklands War in 1982.

Israeli involvement

The Guatemalan military also maintained strong ties with Israel, which began selling and delivering weapons to the Guatemalan military during the Kjell Laugerud presidency.[172] The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) calculates that 39% of the Guatemala's weapons imports between 1975 and 1979 were from Israel.[173] Guatemalan ground troops were primarily equipped with several different configurations of the 5.56×45mm NATO Galil assault rifle and limited numbers of the 9mm Uzi submachine gun, both manufactured by Israel Military Industries (IMI). Israel was also the principal supplier of military hardware to Argentina from late-1978 onward after the United States suspended aid to the Argentine military junta. The government in Argentina also supplied quantities of Israeli-manufactured weapons and hardware to the Guatemalan military on several occasions.[174] In addition to supplying arms to Guatemala (directly and indirectly through Argentina), Israel also provided intelligence and operational training to Guatemalan officers. Technical support was also given to the Guatemalan counterinsurgency by the Israelis, including a computer system located in an annex of the Presidential General Staff (EMP), behind the presidential palace in 1980. This computer system incorporated a data analysis system developed during the "Dirty War" in Argentina, and passed on by Argentine advisors, which was used to monitor electrical and water usage to pinpoint the coordinates of guerrilla safe-houses.[175] A total of thirty guerrilla safe-houses were infiltrated in 1981. In 1981 the chief of staff of the Guatemalan army said that the "Israeli soldier is the model for our soldiers". After the March 23, 1982 junior officers coup, Efraín Ríos Montt told ABC News that his success was due to the fact that "our soldiers were trained by Israelis." There was not much outcry in Israel at the time about its involvement in Guatemala, though the support was not a secret.[176] Despite public praise for Israel by Guatemalan authorities, at least one Guatemalan official claimed Israelis overcharged Guatemala for weapons. General Hector Gramajo stated in an interview, "Maybe some Israelis taught us intelligence but for reasons of business... The hawks (Israeli arms merchants) took advantage of us, selling us equipment at triple the price."[177]

South African involvement

The military regimes in Guatemala maintained close relations with the government of apartheid South Africa. Sources reported as early as 1981 that South Africa was assisting the Lucas regime in the construction of an armaments factory in Guatemala.[178] In November 1984, high ranking South African Generals L.B. Erasmus and Alexander Potgeiter headed an SADF delegation to Guatemala which toured Guatemalan military bases and installations and held talks with high-ranking officials of the Mejia Victores government to discuss continued military aid.[179]

High-ranking military officials in the Guatemalan military, namely General Héctor Gramajo, maintained contact with South African intelligence officials, exchanging intelligence methods and techniques with South African intelligence and acquiring knowledge pertaining to how the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces fought in the Angolan Civil War and how Cuban intelligence operated. Guatemalan military officials intended to apply the experience of the South Africans in Angola to gain insight into the combat methods of the largely Cuban-trained insurgency.[180]

See also





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  178. Information Services on Latin America (I.S.L.A). p 35. 1981.
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